BIG FISH, BIG RIVER Wesley Hollis has been doing a little fishing in his retirement.
Make that a lot of fishing. Hollis, 74, is one of the last of Memphis' commercial fishermen on the Mississippi River. On a bad day, he'll bring in over 100 pounds of catfish, carp, and buffalo; on a good day, his haul exceeds 300 pounds.
In 25 years of almost daily fishing on the river, Hollis has landed monster catfish weighing well over 100 pounds, run through at least 10 boats, battled poachers, rammed a catfish spine through his big toe, and fallen out of his boat and nearly drowned. For his trouble, he makes enough money to maintain his boat, motor, trailer, and nets plus a little extra. For the money, he may be the hardest-working 74-year-old in Memphis.
Hollis calls commercial fishing his hobby and says he wouldn't know what to do with himself if he stopped. You can usually find him at the boat ramp on the north end of Mud Island around 6 a.m. As the sun comes up in a haze over the downtown skyline, Hollis slips a light rubber suit over his jeans and shirt and checks to see that everything is in place in his 20-foot boat -- three large plastic coolers, a paddle, net, gaffe, assorted hooks and knives, and extra gas tank. Usually, his son accompanies him, but on this day he has agreed to take me along instead, provided I do my share of the work.
A big, friendly man, Hollis was a supervisor for several years for a dairy in Midtown before taking up commercial fishing in 1977. He shares the boat ramp with a handful of sport fishermen distinguished by their smaller boats and trailers.
"I want to be comfortable and safe," Hollis explains. When the wind is out of the south, the river is choppy, and the wake of an upstream barge produces waves three feet high. Slam over those in a 14-foot john boat and you'll soon want something bigger.
Hollis cranks the big outboard motor to life and heads upriver toward the mouth of the Loosahatchie River. He wrinkles his nose at the foul smell in the morning air and points toward shore at the city sewer, the source of the problem. The water is browner than it was a few weeks ago.
"I don't know whether it's Missouri mud or what," he grumbles, but it is not good for the fishing. His nets in the Loosahatchie yield an eight-pound yellow catfish that has suffocated in the mud, a three-foot paddlefish that is also dead (and out of season to boot), and a few live yellow cats and carp. Dead fish go back in the river, live ones into the coolers. "There isn't enough oxygen in this water, and there's too little current this far from the big water," Hollis says. "A few weeks ago, I took 45 buffalo out of this same spot."
You can't get rich in this line of work. Hollis gets 30 cents a pound for buffalo, 60 cents a pound for catfish, and 10 cents a pound for carp in the rough. The fish markets won't buy anything over 15 pounds, so Hollis peddles big fish for bait or gives them away. A year ago, he caught two flathead catfish over 100 pounds apiece. He wound up selling one to a man in West Memphis who promptly gutted it, sliced it lengthwise down the middle, and stuffed the two sides into his freezer without further ado.
Hollis heads upriver to a chute on the Arkansas side where he has strung out a long net marked by floating milk jugs. When he cuts the motor, the only sounds are bird calls and the gentle lapping of the current against the bow. I hook the jug with a gaffe and Hollis begins hauling in line hand over hand. A big carp and a blue catfish are caught in the skein, and Hollis painstakingly separates net from fish with a small tool called a shucker. The fish still have plenty of fight in them and flop heavily against the bottom of the boat. A nearby trot line has snagged a 35-pound flathead catfish, an ugly mother if there ever was one.
"Watch how you handle them," he advises. "A guy helping me one time was pushing them back between his legs when a fish flopped right up into his balls. He like to went through the floor."
A small blue cat once stuck its poisonous fin into Hollis' boot and all the way through his big toe. When he pulled it back out, his foot was throbbing with pain, and by the time he got to a doctor, the boot was filled with blood.
Hollis' most serious accident happened 15 years ago when he was fishing alone and fell out of his boat into 20 feet of water and caught his foot in a net. He bobbed to the surface three times, gulping air and trying to free his foot. By the fourth time, he figured he was a goner, but his foot came free and he swam to a sandbar. Another fisherman saw his empty boat float by and rescued him.
"I said I would never fish anymore after that," Hollis says.
But he did. A few weeks later, he was back on the river, albeit with a partner.
"I'd come out here even if I wasn't fishing," he says. "I just love this river so much."